Argentina’s stand-in Lionel Scaloni has got the country singing again
All aboard the Scaloneta. There is standing room only on the blue and white bus with Lionel Scaloni at the wheel, next stop the World Cup final: an entire country packed in, everyone right behind him, squeezed together, singing. It was not always this way but as Muchachos, the song that has become the soundtrack of the last month, puts it: Argentina, land of Maradona and Messi that cried so many years, has its hope back. They have come a long way fast, and so has he, leading them back to Lusail on Sunday evening.
Scaloni was in a hotel gym in Spain when the AFA called four years ago, his first senior squad drawn up that evening as he walked along the beach with Pablo Aimar. There to coach the under-20s in L’Alcúdia, his may not have been the first number they dialled but he answered. “Nobody wanted to take the national team,” admits Nicolás Tagliafico, among seven survivors from 2018.
Initially he was named interim manager for two games. Two more followed, then two more: “There wasn’t time to find a replacement,” he says. He had just seven caps, recently turned 40, and no experience. ” Diego Maradona complained: “He’s a great lad but he can’t even direct traffic. How can you give the national team to Scaloni? Are we all mad? Eat an asado, fine, but coach a national team?! It’s way too big for you, like Minguito Tinguitella wearing Gordo Porcel’s suit.” Porcel and Tinguitella are a comedy duo, an Argentinian Laurel and Hardy if you like, and Porcel is the fat one.
How things change. Maradona was not alone in doubting and that spell taking it two games at a time was not exactly a ringing endorsement, but a connection was building, an identification: a “chemistry” in Scaloni’s words. The national team was becoming the Scaloneta – his national team. A metaphor – it could be a ship he captained as well as a bus – this was a journey where ever more passengers came aboard. And although Scaloni does not like the title, preferring to point to his players, by the time they beat Ecuador in the 2021 Copa América quarter-final, it had gathered a momentum that felt irreversible.
It is now. Long after Scaloni sat in the stands with his wife, Elisa, and two sons, Ian and Noah, the few fans left inside serenading him. He insisted he could not be compared with Menotti, Bilardo or Sabella but what he could yet achieve may even be greater. The sun will come up tomorrow, he is fond of saying, and boy has it. At 44, in his first senior management job, he has taken Argentina from crisis to a Copa América, their first trophy in 28 years, to the Finalissima win against Italy as European champions, a 36-game unbeaten run and now a World Cup final.
No one expected this. Well, almost no one. If Scaloni is an unexpected hero, those who know him saw something. The World Cup’s youngest coach has not come from nowhere. It is there in the personality and the preparation. A simplicity, a directness about him which friends link to a chacarero culture: a farming lifestyle. Which he does too, in fact. Talking to those who worked with him, the same words keep recurring: passionate, determined, funny, competitive. An extrovert, he likes to talk. Empathy keeps coming round too. Spend time with him and he is surprisingly, well, normal.
“It’s hard for me to speak about him because we’re great friends but when they chose him, I was delighted. Many had doubts but he has the perfect mix. He’s very Argentinian but played in Europe: he has the possession and touch of Spain, the tactics of Italy,” says Leo Franco, who met Scaloni at 18, a teammate with Argentina Under-20s and Mallorca, and was his classmate on a coaching course.
“I’ve watched his sessions and he has an incredible capacity to lead but afterwards he sits chatting with players. It’s striking how natural he is. In Argentina we’re very, very, very results driven and until he won the Copa América maybe his abilities weren’t as visible, but I was always convinced.”
The then Uruguay manager, Óscar “Maestro” Tabárez, pulled Scaloni aside in his first year and told him to ignore those who said he had no experience: Scaloni had “lived”, he said. Raised in Pujato, where his family worked the land, Scaloni says there was always a manager inside, a collective conscience that colleagues saw quickly. “He was focused on the group, whether he played 90 minutes or two,” recalls Slavisa Jokanovic, a teammate in Scaloni’s first European season. Gregorio Manzano, his coach at Mallorca, says: “He was competitive, generous and empathised. You saw in the attention he paid that it wasn’t just playing he liked; it was the game.”
Scaloni took his first coaching badges in Rome in 2011. Winner of league and cup at Deportivo, he felt they should have won more and found in Italy the tactical depth he missed in A Coruña. If he had a regret it was not going sooner, but Spain had become home, far from the noise of Argentina. He coached a Mallorcan kids’ team before joining Jorge Sampaoli’s staff at Sevilla, then the national team, and took his Fifa pro licence with the Spanish federation, the new selección coach, Luis de la Fuente, among the teachers.
At Las Rozas Scaloni stood out. If anyone anticipated his success it is the class of 2018. “He was destined to be a coach. He loves football. The teachers would put a subject on the table for debate and he had a great ability to argue his case,” says Pablo Orbaiz, a former Spain international now working in the Osasuna academy.
“He has a gift, something special,” says Ayoze García, another classmate and former teammate. “He’s a leader. As a player, he would be close to the coach, taking it in. On the course he had an ascendancy. He would come up with new ideas. You’d think: ‘That’s mad,’ and then: ‘Actually, it could work.’ Put in practice, it did.”
Gica Craioveanu was there too. “There were two on the course I would have bet on making it: him and [current Rayo Vallecano coach] Andoni Iraola,” he says, then he cracks up. “And he owes me dinner. He said he liked three centre-backs, I said [a back] four and I see he’s used that at the World Cup.”
“I was sure he would coach,” Iraola agrees, laughing. “He was so competitive, determined. After classes, some would stay to play football tennis. And if he had to cheat to beat you, he would cheat. And he always ended up winning. Watching Argentina, I see his character. There was theory, practical sessions, but the best part was the debates, arguments. And Scaloni was always right in the middle.”
There is a richness in that exchange of ideas, in the value of listening, finding shared solutions, that is reflected in Scaloni’s choice of backroom staff: Aimar, Walter Samuel and Roberto Ayala. Those names say something of Scaloni’s humility and intelligence, classmates insist. There is a connection with players and a depth of tactical analysis, too. That capacity has perhaps been overlooked even though it has played out clearly, Argentina shifting through footballers and formations, demonstrating a fundamental flexibility. “We have a great technical staff that leave nothing to chance. What they tell you before every game happens,” Lionel Messi says.
“Tactically he’s incredible: he learned how to structure his ideas, especially in Italy,” Franco says. “I could see it: there’s a coach here. Some said: ‘He doesn’t have a style.’ They were laughing, dismissive. Too many don’t see that football evolves but he does. The two finalists aren’t coaches who say: ‘I have a system I’m not changing.’ You have to control every aspect. You need five at the back? Five. You need four? Four. Need the ball? Have it. If you have to kick it into the stands, kick it. Five forwards? Five forwards. He sees that.”
“Scaloni has probably been the World Cup’s most interventionist coach,” Iraola says. “He’s worked on various systems, allowing them to shift during games. In terms of individual talent there are probably five or six teams a level above them, but he’s constructed a team.”
That has meant a structure that serves Messi and is served by Messi. Simple? As his classmates analyse the captain’s role, it is clear it is not. A potential candidate as Argentina coach, meanwhile, privately admits that the Messi question is a reason that some did not want the job. In short, making it work – “and which Messi are we talking about?” one 2018 graduate notes – is not so easy. As Orbaiz says: “Messi’s had many coaches and they haven’t been able to do this. Scaloni has.”
He adds: “Scaloni had the bravery to take Argentina on and his group management, the union he has built, pfff … it’s brutal what he’s done, brutal. The demands are so, so big: very few people understand the pressure he’s exposed himself to and he deserves enormous credit.”
So now here comes the Scaloneta, arriving at the final. “It all comes back to the same thing: when Leo has an objective, he meets it,” Franco says. “Seeing him reach the final makes me just tremendously happy, for him and his family – because when you’re a coach it’s not just you who suffers. And as for the Scaloneta, there’s something very important: he’s given Argentinians back the passion for the shirt.”